[4 November 2013]
“To reinvent Sinatra, if you can love it here, you can love it anywhere.”
— “Currency”, by Elisa Albert
There’s a scene in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) takes Paul (George Peppard) out for dinner in town the night before she’s supposed to leave for Brazil. Sitting by a fountain, Holly inhales the deepest breath, followed by a quick sigh—all of this while holding her cigarette of course—before she says “Oh, I love New York”, while Paul looks at her lovingly. Hepburn’s affected accent, the effortlessness of her elegant but casual look and the bright-eyed joy with which she expresses this sum up how I’ve always felt about New York, as well.
Sometimes it’s hard to put on your objective critic hat and try to forget your own personal experiences, preconceptions and history when approaching a piece that seems to speak to you at a precise moment in life. Such was the case when reading Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (edited by Sari Botton). I have rarely felt compelled to write a review in the first person, but after reading this book of essays about writers who loved and left New York City, I felt that the book was also inviting me to write an essay of my own, not only because it reminded me of Holly’s quote, but because I’m a few days away from celebrating my first anniversary living in New York.
In the introduction, Botton confesses that she loved the idea of editing a book, because it was the easiest way to get your name on the cover without actually doing much work, but you can detect she relished the process of compiling these essays, which range from the strange, to the utterly heartbreaking. The collection takes its cue, and title, from a famous piece written by Joan Didion in which she establishes she’s had enough of the city and is ready to leave, her farewell all the more haunting, because she knows she will not be able to stay away for long. If there is one thing all the writers agree on, it’s that the city casts a spell on you that lasts for a lifetime.
In a way, New York has that effect on you even if you’re not even an “official” New Yorker (there’s a hilarious essay called “My City” by Dani Shapiro which sums this up beautifully). Even after a month here, I felt I owned it and it owned me, which is why I found myself reflected in almost every single essay presented in the book, especially because I came here to follow the dreams all of the authors in the book came here to follow.
“If I wasn’t there as a writer, was I a writer anywhere?” Roxane Gay asks in her touching essay “Strange Lands”, in which she also shares her complicated history of moving from the Midwest to the city she knew she always wanted to live in. That’s another thing shared by every author in the book; they all express their need to go through a “New York phase”, because it’s like the magical land of Oz for aspiring writers.
Some take this aspiration to excel in their career and combine it with other motivations, like love. “All those years when I thought I wanted a man to love me, what I really wanted was the romance of being a writer in New York”, writes Hope Edelman in her lovely essay “You Are Here” (which serves as the book opener). Said romantic relationship with the city can often turn into a destructive codependency as told by Emma Straub in “Someday, Some Morning, Sometime” where she describes “I was Julia Roberts [in Sleeping with the Enemy] and New York City was my husband”.
While some of the essays fall flat and seem almost too reverential for the subject (although I can understand where they are coming from), most of them contain valuable lessons about the city that can work, in a way as tourist guides (if you’re not scared by the truths they reveal about this place of dreams). For example, Mira Ptacin describes how New York taught her many things about life including “that you shouldn’t interpret direct and efficient communication as rudeness. That a sidewalk operates with the same rules as a highway…” all valid points about the way in which some perceive New Yorkers as stock characters from Seinfeld, “I also learned that summer brings with it the inescapable smell of marinating garbage and human urine” she adds; a detail that made me smile because it’s why I’ve always resented being in New York between May and August.
By the end of the book, whether you’ve lived in the Big Apple or not, you will be able to breathe the passion this city inspires in the people who come to love it. Few places on Earth in these times draw such attention and passion (Paris is the one other city mentioned in a couple of essays). As a new New Yorker, I could have taken the book as a cautionary tale, in order to be prepared for when the city turns its back on me and turns into my own Sleeping with the Enemy allegory, but upon reading it, with all of its stories of violence, disparity, broken hearts and melancholy farewells, I couldn’t help but feel like there was much more for me to discover before even contemplating giving up on the city.
Instead of scaring me, the book made me defiant. This is just the beginning of my love story with New York.